If you like island life then a cheap holiday to Cayo Guillermo delivers a double dose. This idyllic resort is on an archipelago off one of the Caribbean’s most enchanting isles, Cuba. The Jardines del Rey – that means ‘gardens of the king’ - islands trace Cuba’s north coast. If you’re planning a beach getaway in 2018, you’ll find the white-sand stretches that make the Caribbean a magnet for visitors from around the world. The off-shore location means even more water, with northerly winds making the Jardines del Rey a favoured location of wind and kite surfers, who share the crystal-clear waters with divers exploring the world’s second biggest coral reef. They’re checking out the extraordinary marine life, but you can stay dry while watching the flamingos that are the big wildlife attraction of the island’s south coast. Luxurious all-inclusive hotels are the chief accommodation here these days, but the Cayos were once a favourite destination of legendary tough-guy writer, Ernest Hemmingway. And if you want to explore more of Cuba’s fascinating culture the mainland is just across the causeway.
Somewhere between the beach and the pool with a long rum drink in your hand is probably the go-to spot for most holidays on Cayo Guillermo. And natural beauty is the big attraction on the island, with white-sand beaches wherever you look. That means diving centres, surf schools and the like are favourite attractions around the island, with some adventure holiday options away from the sea front. You can enjoy guided bird-watching or head out to sea in a glass-bottomed boat if you want to get closer to the wildlife. Over on the mainland, the town of Ciego de Ávila is the provincial capital, where you’ll find a small museum. Nearby Camaguey has more in the way of historical charm, with plazas, colonial churches, and a gaucho ranch attraction. Cuba’s not huge, so the attractions of Santa Clara, home of the Che Guevara Mausoleum, are as easy to explore as mainland beaches and inland jungles. Havana is probably out of reach unless you’re prepared for a very long day or an overnight stop in the iconic capital.
As soon as you settle in to your Cayo Guillermo holiday you’ll want to grab a drink. But Cuba’s got more culinary delights to enjoy than Cuba Libres – you’ll find out that it’s a lot more than just rum and coke when you taste it in situ. Like all of the Caribbean, Cuba is a real melting pot, with Spanish, African, North and South American influences in its food. Roast pork is a big favourite, Ropa Vieja is a piquant shredded beef, and meaty stews are typical of Cuban cuisine. Rum’s the archetypal island drink and cocktails like the ubiquitous Cuba Libre or mojitos – also invented on the island – are the most refreshing way to enjoy it in the heat. With fruit growing all around you, fresh pineapples, oranges or mangos are great as cocktail enhancers, or refreshing breakfast and dessert dishes.
Kids do like to be beside the seaside, and there is plenty of safe swimming to be found on shores that are perfect sandy play paradises for families. This is Cuba, so you shouldn’t expect enormous theme parks or games consoles in every room, but for kids who like to get out and about there’s a lot of scope for exploration and adventure. Among the attractions you’ll find there are a number of dolphin experiences, which kids are going to love. Keep an eye out for boat trips, fishing outings, and beginner’s water sports classes – some available through hotels – for older kids or family fun activities. If they’re old enough to try out diving, exploring the off-shore reefs and saying hello to a huge variety of marine life should definitely be on your Cayo Guillermo holiday agenda.
Joggers and walkers will enjoy exploring the beaches and coastlines on their Cayo Guillermo holidays. But you don’t have to end your Caribbean Ocean experience at the shoreline. More adventurous visitors to Cuba’s north coast will want to get their feet wet, too. While the beaches tend to have shallow slopes that make for good safe swimming, the sometimes strong northerly winds make this great territory for surfing and windsurfing, and a world centre for kiteboarding. Before the tourists came to the islands, they were important as fishing grounds, and shore fishing and boat fishing trips are still on the menu. One of the reasons for the rich selection of marine life around the Cayos is its collection of coral reefs, which are now the focus for many a diving or snorkelling trip. Bird-watching trips on the island will introduce you to some of the local avian residents, the most famous and striking of which are the flamingos who live in the south coast’s mangrove swamps.
Cayo Guillermo holidays put you on some of the best shorefront in the world. The island itself has three stand-out beaches, totalling around five kilometres of white-sand beaches to explore, or just sit back and chill out on. The most famous is Playa Pilar, which despite the build-up of the tourism sector on the Cayos still retains an unspoiled feel. It’s typical of what you can expect on the island, with palm trees at the back, and a gentle slope into the sea that makes it pretty safe even for kids. The neighbouring island, Caya Coco, also has excellent beaches, with slightly more in the way of drinking and dining beside the sands. Perhaps even better is Isla Medina, the smallest of the islands, with the best access to the coral reef and a restaurant where you can sit and enjoy your seafood supper with some of the best sea views in all of Cuba.
On the islands of Jardines del Rey the majority of nightlife is found inside the big resort hotels, but you don’t have to spend all your Cayo Guillermo holiday in the hotel. Nightlife here tends to lean towards the restaurant, café or bar end of the spectrum, away from the hotels. Lenny’s Bar and Grill on Caya Coco is a good example, a beach bar and restaurant on a private beach, where a meal is just a start of a long evening in the Caribbean twilight. When you can find some livelier nightlife, make sure you try to dip your toes into Cuba’s extraordinarily vibrant musical culture. Salsa is perhaps the Cuban form that has gone most global, but if Jamaica is the world’s capital of jazz, then Cuba is a global centre in the jazz world – watch Buena Vista Social Club as a bit of homework before you leave.
There aren’t many places more romantic than a Caribbean beach, and there isn’t a more romantic time to enjoy it than at sunset. The resort hotels on the Cayos offer great dining – lobster is a favourite on the islands – many with seafront terraces where you can listen to the waves and watch the sun sinking below the western waters. A dance show or even a class is a great way to discover Cuba’s spicy musical culture and get cheek to cheek to a salsa beat. The Champagne might be imported, but you can enjoy cocktails on Cuba that aren’t only delicious, but are also created from wonderful local ingredients including some of the world’s best rums, and tree-fresh fruit juices – the perfect aperitif for a moonlit beach walk under the palm trees.
The Cayos themselves are more about natural history than great architecture – though head to the mainland to see the beautiful Spanish colonial-style railway station at Moron. But Cuba’s charm is in its living culture, a unique melting pot of European, African and native influences that is quickly changing as the island opens up to the United States of America again. The American embargo helped contribute to Cuba’s financial woes, but it also helped preserve the time-warp culture of imported 1950s classic cars that are such an iconic image of Cuban life. This semi-isolation from a huge neighbour also kept Cuba’s artistic life independent and vibrant, most famously in its unique jazz sounds. The biggest local cultural attraction will involve a day trip to the mainland from the islands to see the Museo Provincial Simon Reyes in Ciego de Avila. There you’ll get you some background on Cuban history, including local revolutionary heroes.
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